On the editorial page of the Chicago Tribune they recently wrote an article titled “Restored Faith In Nuclear Power”. This article summarizes the recent earthquake in Japan and the fact that it occurred right under a nuclear plant. Even though the plant wasn’t rated to support an earthquake, it withstood a 6.8 magnitude earthquake with only minor damage and no radiation leakage.
Next, the article talks about the fact that there is some nuclear construction occurring in the US. They cite the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and the fact that they restarted the Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant in mid-May 2007 after a $1.8 billion effort, which took 5 years. Other nuclear plants on the drawing board are supposedly reducing the licensing frame to four years and construction to three years, meaning that nuclear plants could come online in seven years.
The article also mentions that the UN report on global warming mentioned that nuclear power had to be part of the mix alongside wind and renewable resources to reduce global warming. Thus, they conclude, the US can have faith in nuclear power, and left the feeling that in fact more nuclear power is on the way.
While I personally believe that nuclear power IS an essential part of our energy portfolio and that encouraging nuclear power is good for the country and our balance of trade, I think that this editorial is way too optimistic and there in fact is little hope of a nuclear power revival in the US.
The first flaw in the reasoning is the sample – this article talks about the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) as if it were a representative or valid case for the United States as a whole.
The TVA is a unique construction. The TVA is Federally chartered essentially to power the state of Tennessee and parts of neighboring states. The TVA is part of the New Deal legislation and is a relatively unique entity in the United States. Here is a brief fact sheet from the TVA web site.
Unlike traditional power companies, the TVA remained vertically integrated. The TVA generates their own power and has to ensure that their own distribution facilities have sufficient power to meet demand. This model is similar to how utilities used to function prior to our disastrous de-regulation (or re-regulation) experiment of the 90’s which is still unsettled today. The TVA also has eminent domain powers and is popular within Tennessee since it makes the state more competitive by dint of lower electricity rates. These factors give the TVA powers and capabilities shared by virtually no one else in the United States and it shouldn’t be used as a proxy for a typical utility.
I would summarize our current situation in building and designing nuclear power as a “reverse Kanban” in the narrow sense that, in a Kanban system, often any worker can pull a cord and stop the production line. This ability empowers everyone and keeps a well-functioning system working at top capacity. In our litigious society, anyone anywhere can “pull the cord” and stop the system from functioning by filing lawsuits, protesting, and getting either the legal or legislative system to throw up roadblocks to getting things done. You could summarize this system as causing uncertainty, but I would go beyond it – you can be CERTAIN that activists will thwart your project in a million ways, most of which you don’t have powers to stop. Thus this system essentially ensures that anything big and controversial will NEVER get done unless there is an extremely dedicated and well-funded institution behind it with a virtually infinite time horizon – in the US this pretty much limits nuclear power to the TVA.
Utilities today would have to be fiscally suicidal to actually contemplate building a nuclear plant. First of all, the generating companies BENEFIT from high power costs, meaning that their existing plants earn more money for their available capacity. The best financial way to look at it is that they should just harvest their existing assets and keep them running while prices increase. If “by magic” a nuclear plant appeared, they would be better off, but running the numbers on such an uncertain and costly enterprise would kill the project every time. The distribution companies, on the other hand, suffer from high rates and the poor reliability lack of capacity causes and bear the customers’ ire since they pass on these high costs – but they aren’t in a position to do anything about it (since they are in the distribution business, after all).
No one has enough “skin in the game” to make it worthwhile to deal with the activists and do what is best for the country and build a NEW nuclear plant. Some companies like Exelon talk about it, and may even start the permitting process (while costly, this is far less costly than actually building a plant) and are putting their toes in the water in case government subsidies come on board to the extent that it makes financial sense somewhere down the line.
Even if one or two companies are willing to risk billions and endless lawsuits and acrimony to start the building process, you can bet that it will be hard fought and all the delays will make the process that much more costly, since all the capital is tied up in building the plant and can’t earn a return until the plant is operating. One or two plants are a drop in the ocean since we have 65 sites today providing 20% of total capacity and there is no way we will even be able to build enough to replace plants coming out of commission.
Also remember that there are many events that could derail even the tiniest renaissance in nuclear power – these include an accident at any US plant of any size or a major incident overseas. Within the next 5-10 years what are the odds of this occurring? Pretty high, probably – and this will freeze everything in its tracks and cause huge losses at the one or two companies trying to get the plants built, causing even this tiny surge to die off and putting the fear in executive suites of any other companies that would try this, too.
The entire regulatory structure would have to be changed in order to provide hope for nuclear power in the United States. You’d have to re-integrate the utilities, so that the lack of power in the distribution systems would provide momentum for the generation side of the business to do something to resolve the situation. These new entities would have to be required to provide sufficient power for their customers, which would give them the regulatory “stick” and purpose to battle with the endless eco-terrorists. The entities would also require massive Federal subsidies or direct aid to fund these new plants since they are financial suicide otherwise. Even these items would probably be insufficient; likely the only entities strong enough to put together a nuclear plant would be Federally or (perhaps) state chartered like the TVA. I doubt that the states with enough capital (New York, California, Illinois) would have the political will to win, and the states with the political will (Texas, Florida) are probably too free-market to take this radical turn.
Without new entities like the TVA or massive Federal subsidies you can count on zero or negligible nuclear activity; at best it would offset a fraction of what is being put into retirement. Thus the most likely outcome is no new nuclear power on the horizon, since these entities aren’t even on the drawing board. We should watch the progress of the Illinois Power Agency which recently sold municipal bonds to fund a new coal plant in Illinois to provide power for municipal agencies. While this is only a small step, we should applaud any kind of activity to provide new base load capacity to Illinois. It is still an outlandish leap to imagine that an entity like the Illinois Power Agency would be able to drive forward a nuclear plant, however.
Cross posted at LITGM